Art fair oopsies: If you break a pricey artwork, do you have to buy it?

Reputable art fairs do have insurance to cover accidental damage to the pieces on show, but Ts&Cs apply

12 July 2019 - 09:11 By Zola Zingithwa
Don't risk it, follow the golden 'do not touch' rule.
Don't risk it, follow the golden 'do not touch' rule.
Image: 123RF/Polina Ryazantseva

Do you ever sneakily touch artwork when you visit a gallery? Are you that person that wants to experience a sculpture by feeling its every curve? Or do you tend visit art fairs with your boisterous kids in tow?

Last month, a toddler knocked an insect statue worth a whopping R724k off its plinth at Art Basel, an art fair in Switzerland. With the RMB Turbine Art Fair currently taking place in Johannesburg, we wondered what would happen if something similar occurred in SA. If you or your child broke a pricey artwork, would you have to pay for it?

“There is no such thing as a totally risk-free fair,” said Gail Bosch of art insurance company iTOO Artinsure. "[That's] why art dealers should ensure that they have the right kind of insurance in place."

She explained that iTOO Artinsure offers accidental damage cover, so “if a child or adult visitor knocked over an insured work accidentally, our client would be fully covered".

However, Bosch pointed out that “the intention of the person who caused the damage would be a part of the consideration in recovering claims costs”.

Kefiloe Siwisa, deputy director and curator of the Turbine Art Fair, said there are usually agreements between artists and the organisers of the fair on what happens if a sculpture or artwork is destroyed beyond repair. 

Siwisa said while visitors to art fairs are often not held accountable for accidents, for insurance purposes, there would need to be an investigation into an incident to determine who is at fault.

This is where other factors, like what procedures the organisers have put in place to protect the art, come into play. The Turbine Art Fair, for example, doesn't permit prams to prevent "bumps" and overcrowding. It also offers educational walkabouts for children to help them learn how to "safely" engage with artworks, while still having fun.

Each accident is assessed on a case-by-case basis and, if an insurance investigation finds the visitor is to blame, they'd have to cough up the cash.

This was the case last year when a five-year-old broke a statue worth $132k (approximately R1,9m) at a community centre in the United States.

WATCH | The heart-stopping moment a five-year-old knocked over an expensive statue at a community centre in the US.

According to CBS News, the child's mother complained that the centre hadn’t taken enough measures to exhibit the statue securely — it wasn't fixed in place, covered in plexiglass and didn't have a "do not touch" sign. 

Regardless, Inside Edition reported that the parents were found to be at fault for not properly supervising their child and the family's insurance company had to pay out $107k (about R1,5m).

So it's best not to play art insurance Russian roulette. Instead, follow the cardinal rules of art viewing: keep a close eye on your kids and don't touch anything.

The RMB Turbine Art Fair, which promotes affordable art, is taking place in Illovo, Johannesburg, until July 14. See for details.